Mirror, Mirror: A History of Our Reflective Surfaces

bathroom mirror with custom wood trim

The ancient Greeks tell of Narcissus, a man of Thespiae, famous for his uncommon beauty. In fact, some versions of the story describe him as a child of deity﹘either that of the god of the river, Cephissus, or the god of the moon, Selene﹘of whom it was foretold that he would be blessed with long life if he was able to avoid seeing himself at any time. Of course, as each of these stories goes (for they wouldn’t be remarkable, otherwise), Narcissus stumbles upon a reflection of himself in the surface of a pond, where he becomes so enamored of his own good looks that he is unable to pull himself away from the pond’s bank. For the rest of his life, he sits at the water’s edge, staring at himself. Eventually, as he realizes that he can never receive the love he seeks, his grief transforms him into a flower﹘one that would go on to bear his name. 

Curiously, Narcissus isn’t the only mythological character within the Ancient Greek oeuvre that is undone by catching sight of themselves. Perseus famously tricked the Medusa﹘the snake-coiffed she-monster with a deadly gaze﹘into seeing its own reflection in the polished steel of his shield, turning itself into stone. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Greeks (or any ancient peoples) had an aversion to mirrors, much like those of certain modern cultures who restrict the use of cameras. The historical record, however, proves otherwise.

Reflecting Early History

Much like Narcissus of myth, the earliest peoples likely learned of mirrors (and perhaps even the very idea of maintaining outward attractiveness) from seeing reflections of themselves on the still surface of watery pools. From there, volcanic glass and polished stone were used to create the same effect, but in a more compact way that promoted mobility and convenience. Hand mirrors and the artistic representation of such have been found dating back over 8,000 years, predating epochs like the Bronze Age and the era of great Mesopotamian expansion.

In the earliest annals of history, mirrors were made from all sorts of materials, such as: 

  • Stone: The use of mineral ore such as pyrite likely predated the more accepted volcanic stones like obsidian, but not for long. Stone was the material of choice for civilizations like those in Mesoamerica and modern-day Eastern Europe.
  • Metal: As time goes on, the use of polished metals like bronze, silver, copper, and tin became more widespread. These mirrors have been found in areas such as China, India, Egypt, and Greece.
  • Glass: While written evidence of glass mirrors dates back to the first century CE, the earliest physical artifacts show glass bowls coated with lead to produce a reflective surface. These mirrors could be found mostly in Asia.

Mirrors Made of Glass

The idea of using mirrors to assist with fashion and makeup is one that goes all the way back to the earliest civilizations of the post-meridian eras. But mirrors as we know them today﹘with glass cut into rectangles, set into frames, and hung on walls or vanities﹘didn’t begin to (literally) take shape until the Middle Ages, in Europe. As technology became more advanced, so did the techniques to make glass more reflective, more resilient to fire-proofing, and more malleable to being shaped as needed. 

Today, a process known as electroplating is used to coat glass with a silver or nickel substance to produce a highly reflective, strong mirror. At Smitty’s Quality Glass, we have the inventory and the expertise to install the finest glass available for any sized mirror you desire, anywhere in the building. When it comes to quality, the difference is crystal clear.